The word was starting to lose its meaning, Birka thought. Every time that Jerumal showed her something new, it was amazing, or wonderful, or fantastic. This empire in the south seemed composed of buildings and gardens and machines that had the sole purpose of being amazing, or wonderful, or fantastic. This... "This is incredible," she said softly.
The room itself would have made her say that, two weeks earlier. Since then, she had seen the vaulted halls of the University, and the lengths of the ornate central library, and round council room of the ruling class. All of them were white marble, as this one was, with impossibly high ceilings and graceful lines. Each of them were hung with artisan tapestries and lit by the glowing balls that Birka was becoming accustomed to. Rich rugs criss-crossed the traveled ways through all of the halls; these things felt almost commonplace now.
What was amazing was what the room contained.
Spaced evenly along each long wall were pairs of stone supports, and in each support rested a shard of blue crystal, which Birka recognized at once as a time crystal. Between each pair arced a sphere that glowed just slightly, but didn't have the sparks and flares of the time crystal globes she had seen. Within each globe, suspended in time, were tall threads of smoke with no fire, sculpted into beautiful, abstract shapes and forms. Fine silken ropes draped between poles clearly marked the place where visitors could stand. Handfuls of people wandered the room, and Birka was relieved to see she wasn't the only person that the sight inspired awe in.
"These are the finest time crystals that we mine," Jerumal told her with pride. "We save them for the artists, because they are too good to use on everyday tasks. See how clear their fields are? The crystals used in this hall have to be Puregrade."
"Puregrade," she repeated without understanding, saying it as he did, with his southern slur of everything.
Jerumal showed her the written tag on one of the poles suspending the rope, and Birka read it eagerly - she was still more comfortable with the written language than the spoken.
Penna smoke and Cedar smoke, both rated Puregrade.
Crystals are rated Puregrade.
There were silver embossed stamps beside each line of text.
"Pure is..." Birka reached for a word. "Perfect? Completely a thing? What is Puregrade?"
"Puregrade has to be at least 98% perfect," Jerumal explained. "The government has to inspect it and approve the purity of it to get that stamp."
Birka nodded. She was getting used to inspect and approve. "So, Puregrade is less perfect than pure."
It was Jerumal's turn to look flustered - unusual for him, and Birka realized that she had sidled up too close to his side for his comfort. She retreated to the more formal distance that his people preferred - as far away as she could be with her hand lightly on his arm - as he explained, "No, Puregrade is the purest that a grade can be - it is as nearly perfect as industry can manage. It is a great challenge to receive a Puregrade stamp."
Birka tried to make sense of that, and recognized another word from his explanation. "Purest," she repeated. "Those are the people who live to the north before the mountains?" They walked to the next towering sculpture, and Birka marveled at the faint rendering of a woman holding a child that had been magically coaxed from the tendrils of smoke.
"You mean the Purists," Jerumal said with a small laugh. He nodded at a party of scientists who nodded politely back and stared with rude curiosity at Birka. Birka ignored them.
"Purists," she agreed. "They are most pure?"
Jerumal appeared to consider how best to explain them. "The Purists believe that time should not be altered," he finally said, as they settled before another smoke curiosity - this time a rendering that tried to be trees, and somehow failed. If Birka watched very, very closely, she could see the drift within the time crystal bubble - the time within was not entirely stopped, only slowed a great deal. The sign before this one had a marking in red stating that this display would soon be removed, Due to timeout.
"They think that time crystals are an abomination, that no food that is preserved with them is fit to eat. They also think that their women should not be educated, that their children should not be licensed, and they refuse our medicine and technology." Jerumal shook his head, disapproving. "They are stubborn and old-fashioned, clinging to old beliefs and outdated rhetoric. They don't listen to logic or reason."
Birka thought about the squalor of the Purists, and their sickness, and wondered at their choice, but stayed silent. They walked through several halls, commenting on the color of the smoke attained, and the remarkable clarity of the crystals, and kept the conversation to simple words and concepts as they drank in the incredible sculptures. There were times that Birka thought Jerumal was as awed by the pieces of art as she was, and it was a comforting thought.
At the end of the hall, an artist was giving a demonstration to a handful of children and the servants attending them. The two of them stood at the back of the group and listened. Birka understood most of the speech, and watched in awe as the smoke was carefully sculpted and the bubble of the time field was pulled around it from the paired crystals on long stone tongs from a good distance. She clapped her hands with the children at the end of the demonstration, and the artist gestured that they come closer as the children dispersed. Jerumal treated the man with great respect, and Birka followed suit.
"You are the woman from north of the mountains, who came with the unicorns," the artist said with interest. He put his smoky hand out to shake hers automatically, then was embarrassed when she clasped it. He gave her a damp rag that smelled faintly of cedar to wipe the soot off with. "How do you like our hall of art?" he asked, speaking carefully.
Birka smiled at him, grateful for the care. "I am awed," she said frankly. "It is like magic, still. And so beautiful."
It didn't matter what culture you came from, artists loved to be told their work was beautiful. The southern empire artist smiled as wide as his face, and asked, "May I sculpt you? You have a purity to you... I'd like to capture that."
Birka quirked an eyebrow at Jerumal, curious as to how this mutation of the word applied to her. He seemed to think it was a compliment, as "Purist" had definitely not been. She nodded politely. "I would be honored," she agreed. She looked at the small example he had built, curious how he planned to capture her in such an abstract form. He caught her glance, and clarified - "I work in clay, as well. I couldn't sculpt something so specific in smoke."
She handed Jerumal her license pouch, and let him do the arcane things of scheduling and license-checking that his people insisted on. While they were caught up in their papers and stamps, Birka turned to look at the smoke sculpture he had artfully crafted. The smoke outside the sphere had long since dispersed. It was much smaller than the huge sculptures in the hall, and much looser. It had only been an example - it would be destroyed to allow him to use the crystals again for the next class that came to learn. It made the hairs on Birka's neck stand up to be so close to it, and it seemed to tingle underneath her skin. Impulsively, she reached out, and passed her fingers cautiously through the field to rifle the smoke within. It tickled and bit at her skin where it passed through, and the smoke moved obediently to the current she created in that other time. It must have seemed very fast to the smoke - her finger cut through it with little pull on the tendrils. She pulled her hand back quickly, and it continued to feel like cold-bite for a short moment as she looked at the smoke ball curiously.
"You shouldn't stand so close," Jerumal said abruptly, grasping her elbow and startling her. "Do you feel sick?"
Birka shook her head, remembering how far away from the crystals the artist had been, manipulating the smoke with the long tongs. "Most people do, standing that close, You must have a stomach of metal." He cautioned, "You mustn't ever touch it. I should have thought to tell you earlier - it's something we're taught so young! It will kill a person who carelessly puts their hand through it, make them irreparably timesick." He looked abashed and distraught that he could have forgotten something that important, even worried for her, which made Birka put a hand on his arm in reassurance automatically, and she caught herself smiling a little foolishly. Only then did she realize she had done exactly as he'd told her not to, and with none of the dire results he had predicted.
"Timesick," she said slowly. "Does it happen at once?" Had she come thousands of miles to kill herself stupidly and make her journey pointless?
But Jerumal nodded firmly. "The time crystals are not good for human contact. The person will become violently sick, and then age horribly in a very short time. They usually perish within moments."
He must have taken her expression for horror, for he squeezed her hands reassuringly. "They are perfectly safe from here. We take many precautions."
Precautions, Birka could guess the meaning of, and safe was the same word her people used, but she was struck all over again by how very different they were, thinking of the tingle in her hand as is passed through the time crystal field. She curled her fingers into her palm.
"Are you ready to go back to the house?" Jerumal asked anxiously.
Birka smiled reassuringly at him. "Purely, I am," she said.
She did not entirely understand why he laughed at the phrase, but she smiled and followed him back through the hall. She paused only slightly, to glance back towards the artist. He was looking curiously at the globe of smoke... almost as if he suspected that there was a swirl in the smoke that hadn't been there a few moments earlier.
A Torn World story.